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Never a Bad Time for Music

March 19, 2014

Research is showing that the use of music therapy can provide compelling outcomes for elderly people who suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s.  In some cases, music is found to be satisfactory as an alternative to prescription drugs.

Research shows the positive effects of music on dementia and Alzheimer’s patients include enhanced social, emotional and cognitive abilities.  Music has been shown to stimulate positive exchanges and helps to lessen the fluctuation in moods that dementia patients endure.  It helps individuals feel connected and engaged by reaching memories that have been deeply embedded in one’s memory banks, and helps to calm the agitated, anxious patient.

The patient tends to revert to an earlier time in their memory as the dementia progresses – back to early  20s, 30s and 40s. When we engage a dementia patient with music enjoyed during these early years, they feel connected, calm and are motivated to interact. Many dementia patients who have lost their ability to communicate have been known to sing a song known from an earlier time in their life, without missing a beat.

Those with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia can respond to music even when other means of communication fail to scratch the surface. Alzheimer’s disease will impede the ability to recall family members, friends or events of one’s life, but a person’s musical retention will survive the impact of the disease. Music has been known to recall memories for patients in the advanced stages of dementia, memories that have otherwise been lost.

We can select the best music for the dementia patient the more we know about the individual, including ethnicity, cultural background, hobbies and interests as well as their age.  All this helps  make the right choices for the patient.

It is important to choose familiar music that will evoke memories of a time when life was active and happy. Many patients become aggressive and/or restless at certain times throughout the day. These behaviors may be caused by something as simple as boredom or may be more typically associated with sundowning, a phase that surfaces in the late afternoon and into the evening. Behaviors of sundowning may include pacing or wandering, cursing, restlessness, anxiety, crying, paranoia and even hallucinations.

Music can play a large role in normalizing the individual’s behaviors before they become uncontrollable.  It helps the patient feel relaxed, less anxious and aids in soothing their distress.  The importance of having CDs of favorite music available, especially in the car, as traveling, even a short trip to the pharmacy can prove to be a challenge. Uninterrupted music, such as CDs or an mp3 player is preferable to radio. The use of a radio is not recommended because as the music starts to soothe the individual, and they begin to engage, the interruption of a DJ or advertisement may break the calm and trigger the unpleasant behavior it was intended to discontinue.

Music can be an extremely efficient tool in our ability to learn and remember because it stimulates many areas of the brain including motor, cognitive and emotional centers.  Music is used with the aging population to increase or maintain their level of physical, mental, and emotional functioning. The sensory and intellectual stimulation of music can help maintain a person’s quality of life. In those suffering with dementia, music therapy offers many positive effects, including:

  • Enhanced quality of life
  • Assistance with physical rehabilitation
  • Reduction in stress levels
  • Memory improvement
  • Improved communication skills
  • Greater ability to express feelings

Music can be used in so many ways and for so many purposes with someone suffering with a dementia. Know your patient or loved ones history and background and be creative with the choice of music. Find songs that were special to them and use the magic of music to engage their attention and stimulate their interest. Music used to connect to past memories can enhance their life on many levels, improving movement, quality of life, and communication. If you don’t have immediate access to their favorite music, SING, and encourage the individual to join in.  This is one way to identify what songs the dementia and/or Alzheimers patient enjoys and will be effective in helping them.


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